More than two months after taking office, President Joe Biden has offered a first look at his budget priorities, and the signs for NASA are generally promising.
The administration today (April 9) unveiled a so-called "skinny budget" for fiscal year 2022, which begins on Oct. 1. Biden's proposed budget requests $24.7 billion for NASA, a $1.5 billion increase from 2021. The skinny budget represents only top-line budget items, a traditional practice for the first year of a new presidential administration because of how the inauguration and Congress' budgetary calendar align.
NASA Acting Administrator Steve Jurczyk welcomed the proposals in an agency statement. "This $24.7 billion funding request demonstrates the Biden Administration's commitment to NASA and its partners who have worked so hard this past year under difficult circumstances and achieved unprecedented success," he said.
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"We know this funding increase comes at a time of constrained resources, and we owe it to the president and the American people to be good and responsible stewards of every tax dollar invested in NASA," Jurczyk said. "The NASA workforce and the American people should be encouraged by what they see in this funding request. It is an investment in our future, and it shows confidence in what this agency has to offer."
The 55-page document outlining the skinny budget explains that the Biden administration proposes a total of $24.7 billion in funding for NASA, which would mark a $1.5 billion increase on what Congress allocated to the agency for the fiscal year that began in October 2020.
Perhaps most notably, the new request proposes $6.9 billion for the Artemis program, NASA's plan to land humans on the moon, which the document notes is $325 million more than Congress allocated the program this year.
Under President Donald Trump's administration, the agency was working to return astronauts to the moon by 2024, widely acknowledged to be an ambitious timeline. The Biden administration has not yet announced whether it will slow the program's goals.
A key concern was whether the agency would have enough funding to commission a commercially designed and built human landing system to ferry astronauts from lunar orbit to the surface. Last year, the Trump administration requested $3 billion for the system and received only $850 million, so even if the total program increase goes to the landing system, the agency may still face challenges with that segment of the mission.
The skinny budget does not include any indication of when the Biden administration wants to see a crewed lunar surface expedition, but clearly stresses that human spaceflight beyond the International Space Station will be a continuing priority.
"This funding supports the development of capabilities for sustainable, long-duration human exploration beyond Earth, and eventually to Mars," the document reads.
The International Space Station claims a separate entry in the document, for more than $3 billion in funding for 2022 to "support space station operations, cargo and crew transportation, and research that benefits the exploration of space and life on Earth."
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Science continues, at Earth and beyond
A theme of Biden's presidency has been the primacy of addressing climate change, and that goal is evident throughout the skinny budget, which claims a $14 billion increase on the current budget for addressing the climate crisis.
Within NASA's section, the document proposes $2.3 billion for the agency's Earth science programs, which it specifies will "initiate the next generation of Earth-observing satellites to study pressing climate science questions." The Trump administration regularly proposed reducing the program's funding.
Other climate-minded activities throughout the executive branch would develop clean energy technology, facilitate infrastructure adaptation to climate change, address the disproportionate vulnerability of marginalized groups to the effects of climate change, upgrade science infrastructure in Antarctica, and support developing countries in their own climate resilience work.
Science missions also got a nod in the new budget request document. The skinny budget does not provide numbers for individual projects, but it does specifically mention setting aside discretionary funds for NASA's Mars sample return mission as a follow up to the Perseverance rover, which landed on Mars Feb. 18. Funds are also set aside to continue work on the planned Europa Clipper mission to Jupiter's icy moon and the Dragonfly quadcopter mission to Saturn's moon Titan.
Also mentioned by name is the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, the agency's next flagship observatory after the James Webb Space Telescope, which is due to launch later this year. The Roman Space Telescope, previously known as WFIRST, was a frequent target of cuts in budget requests issued by the Trump administration, although Congress reliably funded it regardless.
No NASA missions appear to be on the chopping block given the limited details on offer in the preliminary document, a departure from the last four years under the Trump administration.
The new document also highlights increases in NASA's space technology research and development program and aeronautics research. After multiple years of proposed elimination in the Trump administration's requests, this year NASA's Office of STEM Engagement would see a 16% increase in funding, adding $20 million.
Meanwhile, the National Science Foundation's section of the skinny budget specifies continuing support for the construction of the Vera C. Rubin Observatory in Chile. The section does not reference the agency's Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico; the facility's massive radio telescope collapsed in December after a series of structural failures.
Time for Congress
Biden's staffers across the executive branch will continue fleshing out the administration's budgetary priorities and developing line-item entries. In the meantime, the budget committees in each house of Congress will begin evaluating the skinny budget and establishing the total discretionary budget.
Other committees within the legislature will be focused on how to appropriate that total budget to individual programs and agencies. Congress can choose to accept the Biden administration's priorities or not; the legislative branch has exclusive say over how to distribute the federal government's money.
Throughout the process, the government will be aiming to finalize a full budget before Sept. 30, when current funding expires. If that timeline cannot be met, either Congress will need to pass one or more stop-gap measures, called continuing resolutions, or the absence of a budget will trigger a federal government shutdown.
Email Meghan Bartels at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @meghanbartels. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.